The 6 Factors of Knowledge Worker Productivity: Chapter 3 – Measuring Knowledge Worker Productivity…it’s not what it seems

Many researchers around the world have been in search of a ‘Holy Grail’ measurement of Knowledge Worker Productivity for many years. Whilst the measurement of work in manufacturing and service organisations is relatively straightforward using measures of output per unit of resource like ‘calls per agent per hour’ or ‘units per week’ or ‘cost per unit’, these are increasingly inappropriate for Knowledge based businesses and in fact have a potential to destroy corporate value.

Why do I say this? Well imagine a group of researchers in a pharmaceutical organisation given the task of finding a drug to reduce cholesterol. You can imagine they’d look at all the related research, talk to their colleagues, carry out lab experiments and so on. If at the end of 2 years they had not come up with a new drug using conventional measures they would have failed because with conventional measures we’re always looking for a measure of return in a short term e.g. Output per head. So using a conventional approach to measuring knowledge worker productivity, would likely lead to the firing of the researchers.


Measuring Knowledge Worker Productivity - awa - advanced workplace associates - workplace management


But wait on a minute. In the course of their work these researchers have amassed more knowledge around the subject they were working on which may be of value to the organisation in the future. Just because their endeavours don’t deliver commercial success in the short term doesn’t mean the researchers were failures. Those same scientists may go on to generate a new drug in the future that IS commercially successful in a different field using the knowledge they gained in the pursuit of  the new drug to counter cholesterol. Or alternatively their initial focus may lead to a completely tangential drug.

As an example in 1985, scientists at Pfizer decided to develop a medicine to treat heart failure and hypertension. They were looking for a medicine that would vasodilate arteries, lower blood pressure and reduce strain on the heart. They chose to target the medicine to act on an enzyme found in the wall of blood vessels. This work led to the drug Viagra. The goal of generating a drug to help with men’s sex lives was never the initial intent, but by chance the research into a drug to treat heart failure generated a spectacularly successful commercial drug.

So armed with our understanding of what Knowledge Work was our team set out to find out the answer to our second question: What is known from the world’s academic research about the measurement of Knowledge Worker Productivity?

Our emphatic conclusion from the review of the research into measuring knowledge worker productivity, is that Knowledge Work is so varied and its outputs so intangible that it is not possible to come up with a single universal measure system. Using measures like output per head are inappropriate. We have to see Knowledge Workers as receptacles of corporate knowledge and so creating the conditions for knowledge to flow and flourish is the key to great Knowledge Work.

So are we saying you can’t have a universal measurement of Knowledge Work productivity? The answer is an emphatic ‘Yes’. But is that the end of the story? ‘No’.

What the research suggests is that proxy measures may be used to measure the degree to which the conditions that propagate great Knowledge Worker performance can be used. In the next phase of our research we set out to work out the factors that were associated with Knowledge Worker productivity with a big emphasis on the team. In the next article I’ll share with you the first of 6 factors we identified as being statistically linked to Knowledge Work productivity – that being, social cohesion. As an aside we’ve also developed some tools to help organisations understand how they are doing on the 6 factors!!

Create a better workplace strategy by measuring knowledge worker productivity. For more information, contact a workplace management consultant on +44 20 7743 7110 or email with your inquiry. Advanced Workplace Associates are based in London, United Kingdom but now work internationally across the United States of America, Asia and Europe.

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